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William Frederick (Bill) MacKenzie (1897–1972)

by Geoff Wharton

This article was published:

William Frederick (Bill) MacKenzie (1897-1972), Presbyterian missionary, was born on 16 February 1897 at Ambrim (Ambrym) Island, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), son of Rev. John William MacKenzie, a Canadian-born missionary, and his second wife Alicia Rosa Bertha, née Roberts, who came from Sydney. Young Bill attended (1911-12) Otago Boys' High School, Dunedin, New Zealand. He studied at the University of Sydney in 1916 before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 8 October. Five ft 7¾ ins (172 cm) tall and 10 st. 8 lb. (67 kg) in weight, he served (from July 1917) as a gunner with the 54th (renamed 1st) Siege Battery on the Western Front. On 10 April 1918 he was taken prisoner at Messines, Belgium.

After being repatriated and discharged in Sydney on 27 June 1919, MacKenzie read theology at Ormond College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1923). He helped J. R. B. Love at Mapoon Presbyterian mission, Queensland, at Christmas 1921 and was influenced by the way that Love mixed compatible Aboriginal cultural practices with Christianity. Appointed superintendent of Aurukun Presbyterian mission on western Cape York Peninsula in December 1923, MacKenzie returned to Melbourne late in 1924 to complete his theological studies and was ordained on 13 October 1925. At St Matthew's Anglican Church, Prahran, on 8 October 1925 he had married Geraldine Adelaide Propsting Storrs, a 25-year-old schoolteacher; they were to remain childless.

On 27 November 1925 the young couple arrived at Aurukun. About seventy-five Aborigines lived permanently at the mission; many more followed their traditional lifestyle south of the Archer River. Aurukun had no wireless communication with the outside world until 1937; before that year the MacKenzies' only contact with other missions was by lugger. Patrols of the mission reserve were conducted on horseback. In her reminiscences, Aurukun Diary (Melbourne, 1981), Gerrie wrote of the Aboriginal people and their country: 'I had learnt admiration for their hardiness, their cheerfulness in the face of odds that would have flattened me . . . The spaciousness and unhurried peace of the land they lived in had claimed both of us'. Mobilized in the Militia in 1942-44, Bill remained at Aurukun as a coastwatcher during the war in the Pacific.

Queensland legislation made missionaries responsible for the health, education, employment and behaviour of those living on Aboriginal reserves. On occasions MacKenzie's rough justice—which included cutting off girls' hair for alleged impropriety, and chaining men to trees in cases of domestic violence—incurred criticism from visitors, particularly anthropologists. Ian Peinkinna, an Aurukun elder, recalled that MacKenzie was authoritarian, 'but he made a good man and woman out of that. He had discipline'.

Although the MacKenzies took a keen interest in improving Aboriginal health and reducing infant mortality, they also endeavoured to develop a cattle industry and to create a school curriculum adapted to Aboriginal requirements. Gerrie published a set of illustrated English primers, using 'words, experiences and situations' from the everyday life of Aboriginal children: The First Australians' First [to Sixth] Book (Melbourne, 1951-52). While English was taught in the school, the MacKenzies did not discourage the use of Aboriginal languages.

In 1949-50 MacKenzie served as moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland. The Church and the State government came to regard him as a leader among missionaries, and sought his advice on issues such as the unrest at Mapoon in 1953. He was appointed M.B.E. (1958) and elevated to C.B.E. (1963). Sir Henry Abel Smith, the governor of Queensland, noted that MacKenzie and his wife 'by their example of joyous service, generate and radiate happiness to all around them. Their aim has not been to destroy the tribal customs, but to preserve all that is good in them'.

Strongly built, MacKenzie spoke deeply and deliberately. In middle age he developed a limp, but did not allow it to impede him. He preferred manual labour and practical mission management to office-work, yet his correspondence and reports were expressed with clarity. The MacKenzies retired to Melbourne in 1965. He died on 29 June 1972 at Forest Hill and was cremated; his wife (d.1980) survived him. They are commemorated by an annual prize-giving night at the Aurukun State school.

Select Bibliography

  • Presbyterian Outlook (Brisbane), vol 4, no 65, Jan 1924, p 18, vol 5, no 85, Nov 1925, p 5, vol 32, no 12, June 1949
  • R. M. Kidd, Regulating Bodies: Administrations and Aborigines in Queensland 1840-1988 (Ph.D. thesis, Griffith University, 1994)
  • J. M. Stuckey, unpublished biography of W. F. and G. A. P. MacKenzie (privately held)
  • Committee on Missions to the Aboriginals files and Aboriginal and Foreign Missions Committee correspondence files and Rev F. White, interview with Ian Peinkinna, 24 Sept 1992 (all held at Queensland Presbyterian Historical Records, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane)
  • MacKenzie papers (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoff Wharton, 'MacKenzie, William Frederick (Bill) (1897–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 February, 1897
Ambrym Island, Vanuatu


29 June, 1972 (aged 75)
Forest Hill, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.